Playing with light and shadow: nature photography in black and white

Canon Ambassador Helen Bartlett explains how she captured striking black and white images of the natural world with her PowerShot G7 X Mark III.
Water droplets catching the light on a spiderweb.

Ever wondered what it's like to see the world in black and white? For London-based family portrait photographer and Canon Ambassador Helen Bartlett, it's her style of choice. Helen has made monochrome her trademark since beginning her business in 2003, working with depths of light and shadow as they fall upon the faces and scenes in front of her.

During her downtime in England's Covid-19 lockdowns, however, Helen swapped family portraiture for experimenting with black and white nature photography, while on walks near her North London home. She shares her resulting images, which are a blend of hidden textures, backlit leaves, dewy cobwebs and dramatic woodland silhouettes, on her Instagram Highlights under the name 'Off Duty'. The majority of them were captured on her Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III.

Shooting with a compact camera has helped Helen to develop her style and also encouraged her to play around with new techniques. Here, she explains how the process evolved, and offers advice on how to capture your own stunning nature shots in black and white.

1. Find a fresh perspective

A black and white close-up of five identical flowers silhouetted against the sun.

Canon Ambassador Helen Bartlett used the compact Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III to take black and white nature photographs during London's lockdowns, and in doing so discovered a whole new world. Taken on a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III at 1/800 sec, f/10 and ISO320. © Helen Bartlett

The benefits of a compact camera for photographers are size, versatility and being able to share pictures easily and quickly - but it can also make for a more relaxing experience when there is less pressure to create the perfect image.

"I'd always been searching for something between a phone and a professional camera, as I can't slip my Canon EOS-1D X Mark III into my pocket," says Helen. "Generally, my work camera is just too big for a walk around the park. I was getting really frustrated with images taken on my phone because when I opened them up on my computer or wanted to make a print, the quality just wasn't there.

"I bought a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III during lockdown and started taking it out on our daily walks, where I really got to know it.

"It's making me take more pictures, see things differently and notice things a bit more. I've learnt to relax a bit and not worry – these pictures are for me and not for clients, so it really doesn't matter if things don't work out how you want them to. I can't imagine not having a compact camera now."

The Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III has a large, 1.0-type sensor, which makes it closer to a DSLR or mirrorless camera than using a smartphone.

2. Learn as much as you can about light

A black and white image of stalks of cow parsley set against a dark background.

The Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III has proved a vital addition to Helen's kitbag. "A compact is not the same as a top-end DSLR or mirrorless camera, but to me it's the perfect midpoint between that and my phone," she says. Taken on a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III at 1/500 sec, f/3.2 and ISO160. © Helen Bartlett

A black and white close-up of sunlight creating highlights and shadows on blades of grass.

"When people are beginning their journey with photography, learning to see the light is one of the hardest things," says Helen. "But actually, if you start to look at light and take a moment to take a picture of it, you'll start to notice it more." Taken on a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III at 1/2000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO320. © Helen Bartlett

If you're keen to photograph nature in monochrome, Helen advises learning about light. "Try and take a picture every day, whether you're out with your camera or at home," she says. "It might just show how the light is falling on a glass of water in your kitchen, but you'll look more closely each time you do it."

Playing with light creates depth and interest when shooting in black and white and there are many ways to experiment with it. "Look for the backlight, which works really well in black and white, and don't be afraid to play with contrast and exposure," says Helen. "You can dial your exposure up to shoot something quite high key and then dial it down so you've just got the highlights for graphic, dynamic images."

3. Focus on what's in the frame

A black and white close-up of a blade of reed grass, with several similar blades blurred in the background.

"I've always been drawn to black and white photography because I like the simplicity of it," says Helen. "I like the fact that it's abstract and makes you stop and look a bit closer at shapes and textures." Taken on a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III at 1/400 sec, f/2.8 and ISO640. © Helen Bartlett

A black and white image of three tall, leafy trees in a forest.

One of Helen's favourite things about the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III is its compact size. "It's important that I can fit it in my pocket," she explains. Taken on a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III at 1/800 sec, f/2.8 and ISO400. © Helen Bartlett

Black and white helps Helen focus on her subject in the frame, eliminating any distracting colours or elements, which is another great reason to have a go at shooting urban nature without colour.

"The camera has a fast f/1.8 maximum aperture and Wi-Fi connectivity, so I can just send a picture I like to my phone and process it," she continues. "I don't have to go near my computer if it's my day off."

A versatile lens, macro mode and Wi-Fi capabilities are just a few of the features Helen values in her Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III. "The size and weight, and the fact it's really flexible are all fantastic," says Helen, who shoots in-camera in black and white mode so she is able to 'see' the light in monochrome. "The macro feature is also great if you're out taking pictures of trees, flowers and wildlife.

"My entire world is in monochrome and I love it," says Helen. "A colour picture is often about colour but a black and white picture is about the subject, whether that's a person, a building or a tree. When you're out and about in a park, it also removes any brightly-coloured distractions in the background. I'm always drawn to black and white, otherwise in nature there's just so much green!"

4. Experiment with different techniques

A path through a forest is framed by snow-covered trees in this black and white image.

"Experiment with all the settings on your PowerShot G7 X Mark III, even the things you don't think you're going to want to use," advises Helen. "Try taking pictures with built-in flash, from different angles or using the macro capability. Play around and see how the light falls." Taken on a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III at 1/500 sec, f/2.8 and ISO400. © Helen Bartlett

A black and white close-up of a spiderweb glistening with morning dew.

"Having a camera with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity is really important if you think you're going to post your images on social media," says Helen. "You can send images to your phone really quickly without that extra level of effort." Taken on a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III at 1/2000 sec, f/3.5 and ISO800. © Helen Bartlett

Using a compact camera has encouraged Helen to try out different techniques and approach her photography with fresh eyes. "It's been a great way to experiment," she says. "For example, flash photography is not part of my repertoire, but when it was snowing at Christmas I took a bunch of pictures using the built-in flash on the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III.

"It's been fun for trying different angles, getting low and shooting through the grass, which is very easy to do with the 180-degree tilting screen. Plus the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III has Auto (A), Aperture Priority (Av) or full Manual (M) modes, meaning beginners can learn and progress flexibly, with easy-to-use controls. It also has P Mode (Programmed Automatic) – a shooting mode that's halfway between automatic and manual – and Intelligent Auto, as well as a variety of creative scene modes that allow beginners to get great images without needing technical knowhow."

To find out more about your camera features and how to use them download the Canon Photo Companion App.

A black and white image of a rippling ring on a pond, with a smattering of water droplets frozen in the air around it.

"If you go out and start taking pictures, and you're not worrying about what you're taking pictures of, after a few weeks you'll find that you'll have been drawn to similar things," says Helen. Taken on a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III at 1/1600 sec, f/2.8 and ISO3200. © Helen Bartlett

The slender leaves of a fern-like plant can be seen in great detail in this close-up, black and white image.

Helen describes her personal nature photography with her compact camera as 'photography sketching' – honing her professional abilities while still having fun. Taken on a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III at 1/640 sec, f/2.8 and ISO200. © Helen Bartlett

An activity inspired by artists, 'photo sketching' is another experimental technique that has helped Helen to observe nature. She created a YouTube video on this topic, outlining the power of this fun method of shooting, which is faster but free of any pressure.

"The idea of 'photo sketching' partly came from my cousin who is an artist," Helen explains. "If an artist is making a piece of work they're likely to sketch lots of ideas or details they might want to put into it. My cousin describes it as taking your pencil for a walk. I thought that would be a really good thing to do from a photography point of view.

"I might, for example, find some great new viewpoints at the park that I could incorporate into a portrait shoot. Or I might play with a technique I've seen on Instagram, such as puddle patterns, to see how it's done and what gets the best results."

A black and white image of the shadow of a tree on a stone wall.

"My 'Off Duty' project is literally just that, the pictures I take when I'm not at work," says Helen. Taken on a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III at 1/125 sec, f/5 and ISO125. © Helen Bartlett

Amid a sky strewn with clouds, the sun shines down on large, silhouetted trees in this black and white landscape image.

"I hadn't thought of 'Off Duty' as being a personal project, but I guess it is," says Helen. "It's just somewhere to put my musings with a camera." Taken on a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III at 1/2000 sec, f/10 and ISO125. © Helen Bartlett

"If you're photographing in a fairly dull park, you're going to need the light to lift the image," Helen continues. "Look for where the light catches the sides of things and gives shape and drama. Try shooting at the beginning or the end of the day when you've got that low light coming through. The more you do it, the more you'll see and the more exciting it becomes."

As time goes on, your style will evolve and could even result in a personal project such as Helen's 'Off Duty' series. "Your interests will inform what you're taking pictures of and the more pictures you take, the more you start to see themes," she says. "Don't overthink it, just go out and have fun."

Written by Lorna Dockerill

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